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A new memoir from the "Portlandia" star explores her inner world, and life on the road as pioneer guitar player for legendary punk group Sleater-Kinney

Modern girl

Don’t ask Carrie Brownstein about being a “woman in music”

By Alli Maloney on November 12, 2015

Raised by an anorexic hypochondriac mother and a father who would later reveal himself to his daughters as gay, the tumultuous childhood laid out by Carrie Brownstein in her new memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, set the base for an anxious life spent practicing escapism.

Now known for her work as co-creator and star of the sketch comedy series Portlandia, Brownstein’s artistry rose out of her dramatic adolescence in Seattle. She was desperate to play music, but saw limitations that kept women from joining bands. “I didn’t want to be a girl with a guitar,” she said. “‘Girl’ felt like an identifier that viewers, especially male ones, saw as a territory upon which an electric guitarist was a tourist.”

Just after the start of “riot grrrl” — a feminist, hardcore-punk movement — when the Olympia, Washington music scene was at its ripest, the guitar became an extension of Brownstein’s body, encouraging release and helping the ever-unsure teenager navigate the world of punk politics that bred her DIY sensibilities. Influenced by bands like Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill, Brownstein and guitarist/vocalist Corin Tucker started Sleater-Kinney in 1994, a band that would shape the pair’s identities and careers. After a rotation of drummers failed to fit the group’s prescription, Janet Weiss became the band’s final member two years later. “I wanted to have a girl gang,” Brownstein writes. Playing music allowed them to communicate with one another and push back against the rigid expectations prescribed for women. Across eight albums, the Sleater-Kinney girl gang started a rock revolution that helped usher in third-wave feminism.

Carrie Brownstein performs with Sleater Kinney at Terminal 5 in New York, Feb. 26, 2015. (Chad Batka/The New York Times)
Carrie Brownstein performs with Sleater Kinney at Terminal 5 in New York, Feb. 26, 2015. (Chad Batka/The New York Times)

Modern Girl is an impressive look at a watershed moment in American music history where Brownstein carved a space for herself, her band, and a generation of women who saw her on stage and thought, “I want to do that too.” The book takes fans through dusty basement practice spaces and along on every tour, unpacking gear from ramshackle vans alongside Brownstein as she fought hives, shingles, and depressive states. A talented wordsmith, Brownstein’s focus lies on the discomfort she felt in her own skin, an intolerable itch that music scratched – until it didn’t, and tensions in the band (which she blames on herself) led to a ten-year hiatus. Outside of Brownstein’s plentiful neurosis and anxious moments, the book is full of gems for indie music lovers (Jeremy Enigk from Sunny Day Real Estate taught Brownstein her first chords; she once convinced Weiss to throw a mix tape made by Elliott Smith out the window of their tour van to help relieve a crush), and animal lovers alike (there’s a full chapter on her relationships with her pets). It’s a must-read for those interested in the inner-workings of one of the stage and screen’s most powerful, funny forces.

Sleater-Kinney’s relationship with rock critics was positive –  they were called “America’s best rock band” by esteemed music authority Greil Marcus – but one of the most striking takeaways in Modern Girl is Brownstein’s rebuttal to journalists, who for years misconstrued the band’s purpose in articles teeming with sexist descriptions of the women’s appearances. Brownstein and Tucker, whose labyrinthine relationship is a major component of the memoir, were even outed by a Spin journalist in the group’s very first major magazine article. (This week, Brownstein was proudly named one of Out’s 100.)

Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney. (Chad Batka/The New York Times)
Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney. (Chad Batka/The New York Times)

Here is Brownstein’s take on the identity of being a “woman in music,” after reflection on the release of Sleater-Kinney’s second album, Call the Doctor.

“We were confident, for sure, but we were aware of how uncertainty fermented a sense of having to prove oneself, how it fostered an urgency. This is where we were starting to grapple with something we would grapple with for the rest of our time as a bad: that there was always a sense we were going to have to defend and analyze what we were doing. Why are you in an all-female band? Why do you not have a bass player? What does it feel like to be a woman in a band? I realized that those questions— that talked about the experience — had become part of the experience itself. More than anything, I feel that this meta-discourse, talking about the talk, is part of how it feels to be a “woman in music” (or a “woman in anything,” for that matter — politics, business, comedy, power). There is the music itself, then there is the ongoing dialogue about how it feels. The two seem to be intertwined and also inescapable. To this day, because I know no other way of being or feeling, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in a band — I have nothing else to compare it to. But I will say that I doubt in the history of rock journalism and writing any man has been asked, ‘Why are you in an all-male band?’”

Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is available via Penguin Random House. She is currently on tour to promote the book. 

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